The telling of tales . . .
In 1979, Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter, both residents of the Strathcona neighbourhood abutting Vancouver’s Chinatown, compiled and edited the book Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End. The book, published by the provincial government, is comprised of interviews with nearly fifty residents of the historic neighbourhood that over the years has been home to a multitude to ethnic groups. Represented in the book are members of the Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Jewish, Black, European, Irish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish, Yugoslavian, Finnish and Croatian communities, among others. The storytellers are shopkeepers, labourers, restaurant owners, businessmen, teachers, community leaders and activists.
Individually, the stories are fascinating glimpses of the immigrant experience, of lives lived, families raised. Collectively, the stories paint a rich and varied portrait of a neighbourhood and community that has seen it all through sometimes good, sometimes bad, but often hard, times.
Why, you might ask, am I bringing up a book that was published thirty years ago? I suppose it is because storytelling is in the air these days. This past weekend, Vancouver Moving Theatre (the same company that co-presented The Japantown Neighbourhood Multicultural Celebration an few months back) presented Eastside Stories, a three-day event featuring the voices and stories of Downtown Eastside residents. The festival is part of the company’s ongoing quest to break through the stigma of the area and put a human face on what is often perceived as a wasteland beyond redemption, to give voice to the individuals who call the place home. Opening Doors is listed in the discography of the programme guide and I was moved to search it out on my bookcase where it had been gathering dust.
Leafing through the pages brought back many memories for me. Our family lived in Strathcona for many years and I spent hours as a teen exploring the streets and back alleys of the neighbourhood. My father, Tod Greenaway, served as the photographer for the book, photographing the people in their homes and businesses. As his darkroom technician, recently graduated from high school, I processed the film and developed the prints used in the book.
I must confess that the book meant little to me at the time it was published. We lived there—the people in the book were our neighbours—and I suppose familiarity bred, certainly not contempt, but perhaps indifference. It is only through the filter of time and distance (and maturity I suppose) that I have come to see the book for what it is: an invaluable historical reference in a world where the exigencies of the present too often trample on the past. This is no dry, academic history of a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood; these are real voices, without pretense or sense of self-importance, sharing their memories and their experiences.
Perhaps sentimentality is an indulgence reserved for those not struggling to make ends meet, because there is a distinct lack of it on the part of those telling their stories. Instead, there is a disarming matter-of-factness about the stories, as if they are saying, “This is the way it was, the way I remember it, take it or leave it.” But if there is no patina of sentimentality, neither is there one of complaint—no hint of self-pity or feelings of injustice.
A retired Supreme Court Judge, Angelo Branca, talks about growing up on the east side and attending Strathcona School: We used to play out in the schoolyard. We played soccer there and we played baseball. And in the wintertime we played in the basement. There was always a lot of fighting. We had a large Chinese population there, Japanese, Jewish-and there was a big concentration of the Italian families. So there was always a lot of ethnic wars and the Wops were good fighters. I was one of the best. You know those who weren’t of an ethnic group would call the Chinese people Chinks and they’d call the Wops Dagos—and the Jewish people Sheenies and Bohunks and things like that and this is what they used to do, the Canadian-born, English, Scots and so on. They always felt superior. There was a very definite distinct type of racism in those days. As a single group they were the majority, but not if you took all the other ethnic groups. Kids can be terribly cruel and this was the cruelty that made itself felt.
But you build up a resistance to it, and that’s why we used to fight. And I think because we fought, we earned respect for ourselves. We weren’t going to let anybody trample on us. You could knock us down maybe but we’d get up. And if the sons of bitches wanted to fight, then we’d fight, that’s all. If it was a single fight, then that’s what it was. If it was a gang fight then that’s what we’d have. This, as I say, over a course of years, I think, is what helped a great deal to get the respect.
Within the Vancouver Nikkei community, there is a recognition that our history, as it resides in the memories of our elders, is being lost with every passing day. To that end, a number of initiatives have sprung up recently. The Japanese Canadian National Museum has produced a series of DVDs titled Ohanashi: the Story of Our Elders. In the series, close to a dozen long-time community members including Alfie Kamitakahara, Midge Ayukawa and Irene Tsuyuki share the stories of their lives much like those who took part in Opening Doors.
In this month’s cover story I talk with Vancouver film maker Susanne Tabata who, besides having the world’s most ornate, rococo ghetto blaster in her living room, happens to be a hapa of my own generation. The director of Ohanashi, she has many fascinating insights into the community (only a few of which are included here). All I can say is that, based on our discussion, when the hapa inherit the earth, the earth will be in good hands.
This coming September, the National Association of Japanese Canadians and the Japanese Canadian Citizen’s Association are hosting a three-day gathering titled Honouring Our People: Stories of the Internment. The intent of the conference is, again, to give voice to those who experienced a transformational time in our collective history and to document their unique experiences and memories so that those of us who benefit from their perseverance and fortitude may gain a deeper understanding of where we came from.
My father, a student of history, always bemoaned my lack of interest in history. Somehow, the musty books that he found so fascinating failed to grab my attention. Going back over Opening Doors, thirty years after I helped create it (in my small way), I have come to understand that for myself, oral history has an immediacy and intimacy that third-person histories and biographies often fail to capture. So even though I failed at the time to appreciate the rich history that surrounded me as I was growing up in the Strathcona neighbourhood, I am still able to access the stories that were captured by those who had more foresight than I did.
Last spring, when it became apparent that my father was on his last legs, my sister and I made a point of recording both him and our mother as they talked about their lives growing up in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, respectively. I have a feeling that those tapes will just gain greater value as the years go on and they become part of our family’s oral history.
This month’s issue features a number of pieces connected with the theme of storytelling and genealogy. After all, to paraphrase Paul Simon, who are we to blow against the wind?